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Why are pay networks excelling with cutting-edge programs? It's not because they can cuss on TV.

The Price of Programming


Why do you think the pay-cable TV network HBO is suddenly winning so many Emmys? And why do you think HBO, Cinemax and even Showtime are signing up so many new subscribers?

It's not for the reasons you think.

Well, not exactly, anyway.

It's not because there are no holds barred as far as language is concerned. And it's not because of breakout story lines on "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "Queer as Folk." And it's not because the best actors have rapidly decided that the big audiences — and the big bucks — can be found on pay-TV. Although they're all good reasons.

And it's definitely not because these successful new series are family-friendly, because they're anything but. So the reason for pay-TV's breakthrough with these new hit series must lie somewhere else.

To understand it, we need to understand TV economics.

Back in the day, when we only had the Big Three TV Networks, the three vice presidents in charge of prime-time lineups wanted to hook you at 8 p.m. and carry you through to your local news at 11 p.m. If ABC, CBS or NBC programmed a lineup that effectively kept you from tuning out, that was success. A good lineup meant that the successful network had lots of viewers, and that network made buckets of cash. (The other two networks didn't do too badly either. There were more than enough viewers to keep three networks raking in the cash.)

But there was another factor in the mix that was not quite so obvious: the advertisers.

Procter & Gamble didn't want to associate itself with a show that might irritate viewers. Ford, GM, General Foods — all the big advertisers worked the same way. Their message to the TV execs was "If you're gonna take chances, if you're gonna shock people, we don't want to be there. We have an image to protect."

So those three VPs in charge of prime-time programming served two masters, the audience and the advertisers. For example, if you recall the debut of "All in the Family," which was way ahead of its time when it debuted in 1971, you'll remember that viewers loved it, but advertisers were scared to death of it. And producer Norman Lear had a hard time selling it.

Now, if you're still with me, here's the answer to why shows like "Oz" and "Queer as Folk" can now find a place in your living rooms: None of the pay-TV networks have to please advertisers because they don't have any. All they have to please is us.

And there's something else they don't have to do: They don't have to please all of us all of the time. The reason for this is because the main aim of a pay-TV network is to get you to subscribe. That's all. And the way to get you to fork over your bucks every month—$16 for HBO, $14.20 for Cinemax and $14.20 for Showtime— is to make sure that there's at least one show that you simply have to watch. Economic success is not dependent on your watching the networks four hours a day seven days a week. Four hours a month is enough. And if the rest of the programming is stuff you'd never watch on a bet, that's OK.

Showtime picked up droves of new subscribers when "Queer as Folk" began airing. And those new subscribers didn't care a fig what else was on Showtime. "Oz," "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" have the same appeal to certain audiences. One of these series might be all they watch on pay TV, but to them, that one show is worth the price of a subscription.

What this new economic model led the pay-TV networks to do is really quite phenomenal for TV. They let the writers and producers exercise their creativity virtually without control.

And that's what leads to good programming. (It can also lead to a miserable lot of dreck, too, but that's the price you pay. One viewer's dreck is another's gold.)

So brace yourself as the new fall TV season begins. What succeeds is emulated, inevitably. But in this narrow part of the TV spectrum — the part where pay TV lives and prospers — the audience, and not just the programming suits, are both winning.

Gosh, it just can't get any better than that, can it?

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